Right to Counsel in Eviction Cases: A California Case Study
Housing courts are overburdened. Tenants do not know their rights and are rarely represented. And as a consequence, many people lose their homes. To address these failings, some advocates call for “Civil Gideon.” The famous Supreme Court case, Gideon v. Wainwright held that the Sixth Amendment right to counsel requires the government to appoint counsel for indigent criminal defendants, at no cost to the defendant. Since Gideon, some advocates have called for Civil Gideon, or the right to counsel in civil cases. The movement has now, more accurately, deemed the idea “right to counsel” because it does not suggest that the government should appoint counsel for all civil litigants and advocates do not wish to replicate the indigent defense system’s flaws. Instead, the intended scope for the right to counsel movement is civil cases concerning basic human needs like housing, safety, and custody. The argument is simple. If someone is entitled to free legal representation when they are charged with a minor crime that carries little to no prison time, they should also be entitled to legal representation when their housing or child could be taken from them. Here, I specifically focus on right to counsel in housing cases as a solution to the housing crisis and the current disfunction of housing court. California’s Shriver program provides a case study to evaluate one right to counsel program.
There is a lot at stake in housing court. Tenants can lose their homes and find themselves homeless or forced to move into overcrowded housing. And an eviction makes it harder to find housing down the road. Therefore, it is a serious problem that roughly 90% of landlords in housing court are represented by legal counsel, while 90% of tenants are not represented by legal counsel. Individuals who cannot afford to pay an attorney may find themselves in court more often than they expect. Data suggests that low-income households are more likely than wealthier households to face legal problems.
A Smart Investment
Evictions are expensive—both for tenants and the state. Therefore, it makes sound economic sense to invest in preserving tenancies. A Boston Bar Association study found that for every dollar Massachusetts spent on representation for people in housing court, the state would save $2.69 in other services like emergency shelter, health care, foster care, and law enforcement.
Currently, eight states have some qualified appointment of counsel in eviction cases. To view which states have programs to provide counsel for at least some of their tenants, visit http://civilrighttocounsel.org/map and select subject area “housing- evictions.” Note that some states are highlighted due to city-run programs in their state. Also, note that Massachusetts is highlighted as having a qualified appointment of counsel, but this right is very limited and arose out of a case where there was a parallel criminal case pending.
California Case Study
In 2009, the California legislature passed the Sargent Shriver Civil Counsel Act (AB 590), which set up right to counsel pilot programs. California made the program permanent in 2016 after measured success. Through the Shriver program, nonprofit legal services organizations provided legal services for pro se low-income parties in civil matters that involved issues of housing, child custody, domestic violence, and other critical issues. Here, I analyze its services in eviction cases. In housing matters, a little over half of the clients served received full legal representation, while the rest received unbundled services like brief counsel or help filing an answer. The program also established court-based services like mediation services. With full representation, cases were more likely to settle and not go to trial, and while most clients still moved out of their homes, fewer had formal evictions entered against them and more found stable housing afterwards.
Three of the Shriver pilot programs participated in a random assignment study in 2015 and 2016. The goal was to see if the program truly was causing better results. A randomly selected group of tenants who met income eligibility criteria and faces a landlord with an attorney received full representation by a Shriver attorney. The other group received no legal services. While it is unfortunate that the program could not help all who qualified, this study provided a unique opportunity to assess the program. The defenses that tenants raised demonstrated a stark contrast between represented and unrepresented tenants. For example, 84% of the represented tenants raised the defense of defective notice, while only 28% of unrepresented tenants did the same, and 65% of represented tenants raised a habitability defense, while 37% of unrepresented tenants did so. Shriver-represented tenants also settled more often and avoided trial—67% of represented tenants settled and only 3% went to trial, while 34% of unrepresented tenants settled and 14% went to trial. However, Shriver fell short when it came to the ultimate goal: keeping tenants in their homes. In both groups, 75% of landlords were awarded possession. This finding casts doubt on the program’s efficacy. Yet, when tenants had to move out, those with Shriver representation had, on average, two weeks longer to move out. Additionally, represented tenants saved money, as they were less likely to be ordered to pay the landlord. Shriver-represented tenants were also more likely to receive favorable terms like the landlord agreeing to give neutral references or not report the case to credit agencies.
Shriver staff’s accounts of the challenges they encountered show where other programs may improve upon Shriver’s model. Shriver staff reported that their clients frequently needed other social services and found themselves acting as untrained “semi-social workers.” Social service coordinators would free up attorney time and help clients get the services they need—services that may even solve the landlord-tenant dispute. Additionally, staff reported that many tenants needed their services but either never accessed them or were above the income limit of 200% FPL and therefore unqualified.
The Shriver program demonstrates that some of the greatest benefits of counsel in eviction cases include settling more often and negotiating better terms that will save the tenant money and help them find new housing. It also illustrates the need for other supportive social services. While everyone deserves legal help when facing eviction, sometimes social services can better solve the underlying problem.
It is important to remember that a pilot program serving only a small subset of tenants facing eviction is fundamentally not right to counsel. Right to counsel in eviction cases would look like every tenant having legal representation. It would look like equity.